What Is "Accessibility Debt"? 

April 21, 2022

If you’re ignoring accessibility, we’ve got good news and bad news. 

We’ll start with the bad news: The longer you wait to adopt the best practices of inclusive design, the more you’ll pay in the long run. Accessibility barriers carry interest, and by ignoring your obligations to users with disabilities, you’ll accumulate higher costs for remediation.

As we’ve noted on this blog, digital accessibility isn’t optional. Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and European Accessibility Act (EAA) prohibit businesses from discriminating against customers on the basis of disability. In the United States alone, brands may spend billions of dollars each year by ignoring accessibility (and that’s a conservative estimate).

Here’s the good news: The sooner you address accessibility issues, the sooner you’ll enjoy the benefits of accessible design. By following guidance from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you’ll create content that works better for all users — and avoid overpaying for development and site maintenance.

Related: Is There a Legal Requirement to Implement WCAG?

How an Accessibility Debt Grows: A Quick Example

If you’re trying to advocate for digital accessibility, the concept of accessibility debt can be helpful for convincing business leaders to make the necessary investments. Accessibility debt works similarly to technology debt: Making immediate changes carries fixed costs, but those costs accumulate until remediation occurs.

Let’s say an eCommerce business introduces a new website. While the site is designed to provide a pleasant user experience, the developers didn’t seek conformance with WCAG, and accessibility barriers prevent people with disabilities from using certain features.

When the site launches, the business will miss out on potential income streams:

  • About 1 in 4 U.S. adults have disabilities. A portion of these users will be unable to find the products they need or place orders.
  • A poorly optimized shopping experience will negatively impact the business’s brand with all users — not just people with disabilities.
  • Customers will be less likely to advocate on behalf of the brand. The business misses out on word-of-mouth traffic.
  • Inaccessible websites have lower customer retention rates. The business will need to spend more resources on customer acquisition, which limits profitability.

If the business recognizes their mistake early, they may not spend much money on remediation. However, most accessibility issues become worse over time. 

For example, if the website launches without alternative text (also called alt text) for images, the business may need to add alt text attributes to a few hundred images, which might only take a few hours — but as the site adds more products and web content, the problem becomes more expensive. 

If designers had better habits (namely, adding alt text to images when uploading them instead of remediating the issue after-the-fact), maintenance would be less expensive in the long term.

Website remediation is always more expensive than building for accessibility. Accessible websites have cleaner code than non-accessible websites, which often means lower maintenance and development costs — but when accessibility isn’t a priority, problems can accumulate quickly.

Related: How Accessibility in the Web Development Process Saves Time

Reducing Your Organization’s Accessibility Debt

Accessible design provides an excellent return on investment, and even if your business has ignored accessibility for years, you can take immediate actions to get on the right path. WCAG provides technical guidance, but you’ll need to adopt the right mindset to start chipping away at your debt. A few tips:

Establish goals, deadlines, and responsibilities

You’ll need clear goals in order to track the progress of your accessibility initiative. Most businesses should seek Level AA conformance with the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1). Your accessibility partner can help you set a timeline for full conformance. 

Make sure you’re distributing responsibilities across your entire team, not just a single group or individual. Every person in your business should engage in the work. When accessibility is a shared priority, you’ll create sustainable practices that ensure long-term conformance.

Related: What's The Difference Between WCAG Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA?

Become an advocate for accessibility

Learn about the principles of inclusive design and accessible design, then advocate for those principles. 

If you’re discussing a new website feature with developers, ask whether that feature will function for keyboard-only users. If you’re discussing a social media campaign with your marketing team, ask whether marketers use accessible practices when posting on Facebook, Twitter, and other channels.

Don’t treat accessibility as an “extra.” Accessible practices provide more benefits when they’re consistent — and the only way to develop consistency is to think about people with disabilities when making every decision.

Related: Accessibility Is Not a Checklist

Show your team why accessibility is important

When a team understands the importance of accessibility improvements, they’re less likely to make mistakes in the future — and less likely to contribute to your organization’s accessibility debt.

Instead of focusing on the “how,” focus on the “why.” For example:

    • Adding alt text to images improves accessibility by providing a text alternative for people who can’t perceive content visually. 
    • Improving keyboard accessibility makes web browsing more pleasant for people with mobility disorders and neurocognitive conditions. 
    • Using appropriate color contrast ratios improves the browsing experience for people who are colorblind or who have other vision-related disabilities.

For more guidance, contact the Bureau of Internet Accessibility or download our Definitive Website Accessibility Checklist.

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